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Head Case 

Experts say ex-football players with head injuries often end up in the criminal justice system. Former USC lineman Chris Brymer is exhibit A.

Wednesday, Sep 29 2010
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"I'm crazy. I'm gonna kill you," Brymer recalls him saying. "Don't fuck with me." He tackled the man to the ground in order, as he puts it, to "restrain" him. Within seconds, a Muni train arrived. Figuring he was safe, Brymer stood up and walked away.

The next day, he again saw the big man he had tussled with — this time at the Muni platform at Fourth and Berry streets. Brymer kept his distance, waiting behind when the guy stepped onto a T-train that carried him away. As Brymer stood listlessly on the platform holding his shopping bag, he was approached by a half-dozen police officers, who cuffed him and led him away, bewildered.

The other men involved in the altercation, Henry Therkield and Shaun Parker, have a different story. It was Therkield who first interacted with Brymer in the soup kitchen. He would later tell police officers that he was approached by a "crazy" man — Brymer — while getting his food, who gazed at him directly and said, "Someone is gonna die." Concerned that he was being threatened, Therkield left the kitchen and encountered Parker, his friend, outside.

During a hearing in San Francisco Superior Court on Aug. 4 and 5, Parker testified that while he was sitting with Therkield on the Muni station platform, Brymer approached, complaining that Therkield had "cussed at him" inside the soup kitchen. When Brymer didn't go away, Parker stood up and confronted him. "I got nothing to do with that," Parker said. "Just back off." He admitted in his testimony that he was brandishing a knife.

Brymer then reached into a trash can, pulled out some form of "smooth" object — Parker couldn't say what it was — and began beating Parker over the head, saying, "Die, nigger, die." A Muni train pulled up, filled with people, who began screaming at Brymer to leave Parker alone. Brymer fled the scene.

A day later, according to Parker, he saw Brymer again. He left the Fourth Street Muni platform and crossed the street to avoid a confrontation, but Brymer followed him and started pummeling him on the sidewalk in front of the Panera cafe at the corner of Fourth and King streets. When a train approached, Parker hurried back to the station and caught it, with Brymer in pursuit. Once onboard, Parker called the police.

Both accounts of the incidents have weak spots. It's not clear, for instance, why Brymer attacked a man holding a knife to subdue him, rather than simply walking away. Parker's story is also problematic. Muni surveillance cameras show that the two men were at the same stop on July 20, but depict only Parker slowly boarding a train — not running or being pursued — while Brymer walks down the platform cagily.

Brymer denies using a racial slur on either of the days he encountered Parker, and says he didn't interact with him at all when they saw each other the day after the initial fight. His attorney, deputy public defender Nicole Solis, says the allegation of a threat using the word "nigger" was concocted to "capture the DA's imagination." Says Solis, "I have represented all kinds of people — Aryan Brotherhood, neo-Nazi, all kinds — and Chris is not a person I think would ever use this word."

Parker's own criminal background raises questions about his credibility. He admitted under cross-examination during the pretrial hearing that he had multiple felony and misdemeanor convictions — including assault on a police officer, auto theft, and domestic violence — and that he was under a stay-away order from his former residential hotel in the Mission.

Parker's rap sheet and the holes in his story could make prosecutors' jobs difficult as they seek a conviction. But the trial's outcome won't answer a bigger question. What happened to Chris Brymer? He had descended from the pinnacle of athletic and financial achievement to become a human wreck, and nobody could understand why. His family had no history of mental illness, and doctors he was persuaded to consult offered conflicting diagnoses: depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia.

It turns out that some of the brightest minds in medical science have been working hard for years to understand the root of symptoms just like Brymer's. They have even identified a cause. They just don't know how to help.


Bennet Omalu, a Lodi forensic pathologist, is known in California's Central Valley in his professional capacity as San Joaquin County's chief medical examiner. Within the national fraternity of advanced brain researchers, he is recognized as the first medical expert to conclusively diagnose CTE in a football player.

Omalu's discovery took place in 2002 during an autopsy he performed on Mike Webster, the Hall of Fame center for the Pittsburgh Steelers. After playing in the NFL from 1974 to 1990, Webster exhibited a bizarre range of cognitive and emotional problems mimicking dementia and mental illness in retirement. He ended up living out of his car and dying at the age of 50. Omalu's examination of Webster's brain after his death revealed extensive tissue damage signified by the presence of the tau protein, a substance found in Alzheimer's patients that destroys neurons. Since other biological markers of Alzheimer's were absent, Omalu concluded that Webster had suffered from a condition not yet understood by doctors: brain injury from repeated head trauma. For "Iron Mike," an offensive lineman of legendary fortitude, it made perfect sense.

Since then, Omalu and his organization, the Brain Injury Research Institute — along with other medical researchers working independently — have diagnosed numerous cases of CTE in deceased professional and college football players. The most recent case came in mid-September, when Boston University researchers diagnosed CTE in the brain of Owen Thomas, a University of Pennsylvania football captain who inexplicably hanged himself at his apartment in April. He had never played in the NFL, offering a sobering indication of how quickly CTE develops.

About The Author

Peter Jamison

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